Watching my town die

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I have been trying to write about this, writing about it in my head, for quite some time. More since I've been home from my trip to Oregon, but before that, too. Sometimes it's just too difficult to write about, I guess. I feel like it might be OK this time.

I am from a very small town. Everybody knows everybody, and people's lives intersect with yours in repeating and sometimes odd ways. Because of this proximity, I often begin stories about people from my town with, "My friend..." This is not because these people are actually all my friends--in fact, there are quite a number of them I can't stand. They are more like family than anything, with their constant and often irritating presence. I didn't choose them, but we were linked together for enough years that I can never quite write them off, either.

Anyway, this is one of the stories that would begin, "I have a friend at home..." and go from there. Except that this girl was never my friend. Perhaps if she had been, some of how I am feeling about this would make more sense.

She had red hair and freckles and was always a bit pudgy. She was in the same grade in school as J., the second cousin down from me in our family cousin stair-steps. That would make her about three years younger than me, I think. Maybe just two. Her name was Amber. I don't remember having much of an impression of her as a kid--she was just someone who was always around. If I saw her on the street, I'd recognize her and say hi, but we didn't ever have any real relationship.

About a year ago, I was talking to my mom on the phone. Often, mom's phone calls can be summarized in list form: "Who Died," "Who Got Sick," "Who Had a Baby," and "Who is Pregnant" are the usual categories, with a fair sprinkle of "Who Got Married" and "Who Got Divorced." This was a "Who Got Sick" list. Generally, the people on these lists are people I can recall only hazily, sitting in the cafe where I worked in high school at the "locals" table, drinking coffee and not leaving a tip; or accosting me at basketball games to tell me how tall I've gotten or how much I look like my mom. They are usually older, and the news of their sickness is generally not all that surprising. I've known a lot of older people my whole life, and it's normal to me that they get sick, and that often they die. It's not pleasant, but it's part of the process, and I accept that.

This call was different. This time the person on the "Who Got Sick" list was Amber. She was 21, and she had cancer. They weren't sure what the extent of it was yet, but given her age it probably wouldn't be a big deal. I told mom to keep me updated, and, for the past year, she has.

While I was home for Christmas, Amber died. After a year of radiation and chemotherapy, losing weight and losing her hair and fighting the cancer that had taken over her body like locusts, she died. My mother and my brother, who knew her better than I did (they went to the same college and shared rides home a few times), intended to go visit her at her parents' house during the holiday season, after it had gotten through the small-town rumor mill that she had come home from the hospital for good and was not expected to make it much past the new year. Mom got a cold, though, and they didn't want to make things any worse, so they stayed away. Then, just a couple of days after Christmas, she died.

I have this enormous grief and I don't know where to put it, or even precisely why it is here. I mean, it is, of course, horribly sad that cancer would steal life from someone so young, but it is not like we were close. In reality, I barely knew this girl. So why has her death barely left my thoughts for the past three weeks?

I've thought a lot about it, and I've realized it's not just Amber's death that is making me feel this way, though it probably was the catalyst. I get this feeling every time I go home--like the whole town is a living thing and I am watching it slowly die. This trip it was Amber, but I also learned that someone else I know, the husband of a woman and children I knew well a few years back, has also been diagnosed with cancer and is not responding well to treatment. And the Parkinson's that is ravaging my dad's youngest brother's body is noticeably worse than it was when I last saw him. I used to think the feeling of death came from the mean age of the town being so high, but these cases are all people under 50. And Amber was only 22.

The town itself seems to be dying right along with the people in it, too, and I think part of the feeling comes from that. Every year, the entering class at the elementary school where my mother works seems to have fewer children. Every time I drive into the city limits I breathe a sigh of relief that the town is still there at all. I fear that sometime I will drive to the particular wide spot on the road where I think my town should be and not even find a shadow in the grass of where it was. For that day, I am already grieving.

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